Inclusive, equitable, and fair assessment

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In this post, Sam Maccallum addresses the benefits of making assessment practice inclusive by design. They discuss their own experiences of being a student with a learning difficulty during the pandemic. Sam is a postgraduate student, and Vice President Education at Edinburgh University Students’ Association. This entry is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme: Assessment and Feedback Principles and Priorities.

The University’s new assessment and feedback principles include “our assessment and feedback practices will be inclusive, equitable and fair.” This principle is matched with the priority to create assessment and feedback methods which are inclusive by design.

During the introduction to this blog series, Tina Harrison outlined the need for change in assessment and feedback design after the University’s Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR) and the similar issues highlighted in the National Student Survey (NSS) results.

Fundamentally, assessment methods should consider all students in their creation, ensuring that no students are left behind during policy decisions. Shifting towards inclusive assessment recognises the diversity of student needs and aims to bridge gaps in attainment and outcomes for all of our students.

Minimising the need for individual learning adjustments

Despite the benefits of learning adjustments for some students, considering accessibility earlier in assessment design may benefit more students, particularly those without formal diagnoses.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in my third year. I had pre-existing arrangements for extra time in my exams for anxiety, but not a separate room. The rest of my cohort would enter the exam hall after I had started, and I would try and work through footsteps and scraping chairs, and try to tune out the invigilators reading out the examination guidelines for a second time.

I was given extra time to be on an equal footing with my peers, and although I could now finish a paper within time, the design of these exams was still working against me. I had no rest breaks during my 3 hour honours essay exams – which became 3 hours and 45 minutes with extra time. Considering ADHD impairs my ability to sit still and focus for long periods, it’s no surprise that this impacted my academic performance. Despite trying, no amount of revision would counteract the fact that these exam conditions didn’t support my disability, and in some ways made it harder to manage.

Experiencing exams during Covid-19

I missed my final third year exams due to an episode of psychosis – which I wrote about in more detail here for the Mind charity last year. My course coordinator kept in contact with my family, and updated the University on my condition while I was in hospital. She fully supported my return to studies when I felt ready, and I sat the resit diet as a first sitting in the same year.

The August exams, like the ones my peers had sat in spring, were online, 24 hour, and open book. The freedom of taking an exam at home, without distractions of an exam hall, let me approach the exams on my own terms.

I had previously struggled to understand questions within the pressure of an exam hall, but with the 24 hour format, I could manage my own time and take rests when I needed. I didn’t have to adapt the times I took my medication to fit my exams – and had an endless supply of coffee. I progressed to my final year alongside my friends, and managed to graduate with a 1st in 2021.

The benefit of using technology in this way to offer more flexible conditions should be recognised, and we have a lot to learn from the positives of the pandemic, and placing student and staff wellbeing at the heart of policy changes. We should also acknowledge and address the assessment literacy of our current cohorts, particularly those entering honours this academic year, many without experience of in-person exams at university level.

Taking into account diverse student learning needs and approaches

Creating diverse assessments allows different students to play to their own strengths, and gives them the chance to demonstrate their learning in formats which work for them as individuals.

My Master’s this year was entirely based on coursework. We were given a variety of formats to demonstrate our learning, which focused on both creativity and real-world scenarios (so-called authentic assessments) to develop a range of skills, rather than a heavy essay focus.

Where possible, students should be given the chance to make informed decisions in how they are assessed, ideally given opportunities to co-create assessments (see Cathy Bovill’s blog in this series). If relying on online exams, we need to consider the spaces that students have to take these exams and make provisions for students on campus when necessary.

Equitable outcomes for assessment and addressing awarding gaps

When I look at attainment gap statistics, I see myself, and I see students like me who were not able to finish their studies. I am sure that a lack of academic support contributed to me dropping out of school at 16. The more I learn about the Support for Study policy at Edinburgh through my role, the more I am convinced that I would not have completed my undergraduate degree had I been a student in Edinburgh at the time.

In the UK, 39.4% of white graduates got a first class degree, compared with 20.0% of black graduates. We are failing too many students with existing policy and practice and must strive to do better. I recognise the privilege of my own situation, and that others going through similar circumstances would not have had the same support. We must address these systemic issues. We have a responsibility as a world-leading university to lead the way in inclusive assessment, both for our students and the wider sector.

picture of authorSam Maccallum

Sam Maccallum is Vice President Education, one of five sabbatical officers at Edinburgh University Students’ Association. Before being elected, Sam was studying an MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement within the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences, after completing their undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Glasgow in 2021.                                                                                                        (Image credit: Andrew Perry)

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